Saturday, December 04, 2004

Arrival in Karakol

I arrived in Karakol on Thursday evening, after a one hour flight from Osh to Bishkek, then a six hour drive, though a mountain pass, along the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, and then up past apple orchards and along poplar lined roads, up into snowy mountains.

I’m staying in a guesthouse in a residential neighborhood. It was dark when I arrived at 5 p.m., so when I looked out my window on Friday morning, I was treated to a view of boxed village homes. In our yard, there is an annex with some guestrooms, chickens and geese pecking around a pile of hay, a dilapidated outhouse and a barn. The guesthouse owner, a former doctor, is well-off now, but it’s easy to imagine how they used to live.

Bare trees stood in between the homes - small fruit trees, white birch, and a tall tree that glowed a yellowish green. In a line extending across the horizon, rising above all the local scenery, was a ridge of snowy mountains, giant bulks of earth, like clumps of milk-filled breasts, rising up to meet the light morning sky, dusted with a white cloud cover.

I walked to work on my first day, hearing pigs grunt behind me as I left the guesthouse, enjoying the exercise of the 30-minute walk. I imagined walking to and from town every day, forgetting that at night it is cold and dark, like walking through a pitch-black icebox.
Walking straight down a residential street to the center of town, I paid attention to the local architecture and life. Bare poplar trees and little wooden box houses lined the dirt road. I found the roofs to be interesting, some with balconies, others with windows, and of various colors, shapes and sizes. The street was quiet, dotted with sheep and dogs, and I felt as though I could be walking through any small Russian town, except that many of the faces were Kyrgyz. I watched two young boys emerge from their home to throw paper airplanes at cars, saw others pulling wooden sleds across the snowy streets, and watched a broken water pipe splashing water against a tree, which froze in a uniquely shaped clump of ice.

Karakol, now the third largest city in Kyrgyzstan, with a population of about 75,000, was first founded as a Russian fort in 1869, and it still retained that atmosphere, with many more Russians than in a place like Osh, and horse-drawn carts frequently clip-clopping through the city streets, alongside Mosvichs, Nivas and Audis.

My guidebook tells a story of a large storm coming through the city, just as the cartographers were finishing up mapping the Karakol fort. The winds blew away all the contents of the yurts, including the maps. The next day the local Kyrgyz offered to help. Together with the Russians, they formed a line toward the river, searching the land in the direction the storm had gone, and finding all but a few pages. In the 1880s the population grew considerably with an influx of Dungan, Chinese Muslims, escaping persecution in China.

In 1886 Karakol was renamed Przhevalsk, in honor of a Russian explorer who died here while preparing for an expedition to Tibet (I’ll soon write more about him). Lenin returned the name Karakol in 1926, until Stalin gave it back to Przhevalsk in 1935 (did these guys really have nothing better to think about than the name of a city on the very fringes of empire?), the name it retained until 1991 when it again became Karakol (which means “black wrist”)

The center of town was pretty dull. I walked through the central square, where some photographers were set up with stuffed animals, and signs that said things like “Happy Students Day” or “Happy Birthday, Karakol, 2004.” There are several shops, a small market, and a few cafes in the center of town. There are also a lot of universities. As the capital of the Issyk-Kul region, Karakol hosts five universities and a large population of students.

Today I took a quick look at the attractive wooden Russian church, built in 1895. Fourteen old Russian woman and one Russian boy, probably accompanying his grandmother, stood at attention for the service in progress.

On my way home, I walked through a mini-market on the way home, impressed by the salad sellers lined up under a roofed marketplace with no walls. Most of them sold white noodles in a bowl that buyers could eat there, a Dungan dish that reminded me of Vietnamese pho.

On the way home, I watched a man fill a bucket from a streetside pump, watched others cart water home in tin canisters on wheels, watched children playing on old-fashioned sleds with rudders and watched young adults sliding along the icy streets.

I find this a completely different world from Osh and it’s pretty remarkable that they are part of the same small country. In my one month in Osh, two male local staff members stole female staff members. Bride stealing happens here, but as far as I know, it’s not so common that it affects our staff. It’s generally calmer here, there is a bit more of a Russian mentality, and there aren’t the concerns with fundamentalists, terrorists, and cross-border problems that are issues in Osh.

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